No one told Blaine Snyder to take a hike. He just did. And it was a very long walk.
Snyder recently returned from a 2,184.2-mile - give or take a few miles, but who's counting? - trek of the Appalachian Trail. During his 153-day stroll the 24-year-old's beard grew until it draped from chin to chest.
He lost about 65 pounds by the time he reached the trail's end at Mount Katahdin. He had blisters on blisters. "I was a mountain man. Hairy. Stinky. Skinny," Snyder recalls. "I had blisters, raw spots, numb toes and even lost a few toenails."
But through it all he always kept on his northward path. "The feeling of walking, traveling all day on foot, is really primal," explains Snyder. "Humans have been traveling by foot for thousands of years. It opens a world of wonder and a way to see that world."
Those sights represent many first-time experiences, plus memories Snyder says he will keep with him throughout his remaining journeys. "In the Shenandoah Valley I saw my first bear. He turned, ran, tripped and rolled - I scared him more than he scared me."
Taking a semester off from his studies at Jacksonville State University, the soon-to-be senior says the long walk, from Feb. 12 until July 13, was an education in itself. "I put more into it than I thought I would and took more out of it than I thought I would," Synder says of his odyssey. "This was a journey I'd wanted to take for a long time."
Pigeon Mountain, near LaFayette, Ga., was where Snyder's interest in hiking and climbing first blossomed. He was about 9 or 10 when he started rappelling and climbing with his parents and siblings. At 16, he covered about 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and it was that hike "that started the dream" though the hike itself failed due to a lack of preparation and trying to carry too much.
"I'd planned for a two-week hike but only lasted two days," he says. "I vowed then to never let the Appalachian Trail defeat me like that ever again." This year's successful trek was the result of five years of planning, testing equipment on shorter jaunts on the Pinhoti Trail and sections of the Silver Comet Trail that are near his college campus in Alabama. Snyder began this year's hike with a friend from college. The two started by planning every day's activity with the intention of covering about 20 miles before pitching camp. "That lasted for about two weeks," Synder says.
Instead, the rhythm of the trail took over. Once, on finding where rocks formed a natural waterslide, the hikers spent half a day just playing in the water.
And on more than one occasion Synder says he experienced what is known as trail magic. "It's the way people along the way are so giving," he describes."It pops up when least expected, but most needed."
Snyder says his journey taught him how far he could push himself. "I learned there is no limit to what I can do," he says, adding that anyone with the desire can follow in his footsteps, just as he has followed the path of so many before him. "Any person who feels they want to do it, do it. Research it, try it; it's really hard, but it can be done."
Some take 40 or more years to complete their hike of the Appalachian Trail, others will be thru-hikers who travel the trail end-to-end without pause. "Hike your own hike, hike your life," Snyder says. "Do what's right for you or you won't finish."
Since returning home, Snyder has trimmed his beard and gone to work at Rock/Creek Outfitters. He intends to finish the university course work necessary to earn a degree in accounting. And he has already begun planning his next long walk - stretching his legs on the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada.
"I'm feeling the call of the road," he says. "It's in my blood."